In November of 1871, the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, contracted typhoid fever, a deadly disease which at the time was blamed on sewer gas, a noxious vapour which arose out of the modern conveniences that were a feature of middle- and upper-class homes. Water closets had been heralded by sanitary science as the safest and most efficient means for disposal and, despite the foul smell they were associated with, having one was still considered a privilege. “The pestilence that walketh in darkness” the Times called it, declaring that “our worst foe is Civilization”.
Covid-19 is not just a disease of the poor
Today the world is stalked by another pestilence, one that does not spare the wealthy and has already afflicted the current Prince of Wales. In the words of the Times 150 years ago, “it is a more terrible, more constant, and far more insidious danger which now occupies the foreground in public anxiety”. Much of the concern is driven by the fact that Covid-19 is not just a disease of the poor. As Prof Alex Broadbent of the University of Johannesburg asks: “Would we care about the increased risk of fatal pneumonia that Covid-19 might cause in Africa, if it did not also greatly increase the risk of fatal pneumonia for prime ministers, business people and university professors, including those in countries where infectious disease and its terrors are supposed to be of historical interest only”? As sewer gas did, coronavirus has “shifted the focus away from the fever dens of the poor to the chambers of princes and, more frequently, “ordinary middle-class houses” as sites of disease and death”.
Globalization has allowed covid 19 to spread
The pandemic is devastating more than just health systems. It is also shattering the illusion of safety engendered by systems which for centuries have concentrated global resources in a few societies, families and individuals while leaving many across the globe without access to basic life-sustaining necessities. And once again, the blame is being laid at the door of “Civilization”, this time in the form of globalization. “It’s globalization that has allowed covid 19 to spread around the world at such incredible speed” declares Deutsche Welle, decrying how reliant the West has become on cheap medicines and products from China and India. illustrating just how dependent the world has become on just one economy, China declares John Gray.
The coronavirus has hugely increased, at least in the short term, the costs of global inequality and exploitation. The question is whether “civilization” will win out as it eventually did in London, where following the Prince’s recovery, sanitary reform became a national priority. Will the global pandemic pave the way for reform of the global system to make it more equitable or is John Gray right when he declares in the New Statesman that “the era of peak globalisation is over”?
The poor paying the price for a disease of the wealthy
Undoubtedly, continuing along the same path would entail the powerful accepting vulnerability as the price of inequality. After all, while the poor are paying a steep price for a disease that the wealthy are primarily responsible for spreading, Max Fisher and Emma Bubola note in their piece for the New York Times, that “in an epidemic, poverty and inequality can exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality for everyone”. Therefore in the absence of a vaccine (and a viable one is reckoned to be 12-18 months away), as long as the poor continue to get sick, so will the rich and powerful. How those at the top of the global food chain, be they the citizens of the global North or elites in the global South, act to reduce that vulnerability will depend on the extent to which they are willing to share the wealth along with the diseases.
On the other hand, while it is true that economic globalization has been taking a pummeling of late, a significant retreat as Gray prophesies seems unlikely. Already, there is talk of reopening economies and resuming normal life. Yet without globalization and the accompanying “worldwide production and long supply chains”, the new normal would be an expensive one. It is questionable whether countries like the US and Germany could afford to produce goods and medicines at the cost that they import them from countries like China and India. Or whether their citizens would be willing to forgo access to cheap iPhones to protect the one-percenters.
Reform the global systems
The other option open to the rich and powerful to reduce their vulnerability is to reform the global systems rather than retreat from them. That will require recognition that their privileged lifestyles are underwritten, as Umair Haque, the London-based consultant and author, notes, by “centuries … of colonialism, capitalism, supremacy, patriarchy”. That has created a world where Europe, which grows no coffee, can make 5 times more from coffee exports than sub-Saharan Africa which does. The global vulnerability to diseases like covid 19 rests on such distortions and inequalities.
Changing this will be impossible if the mould is not broken. And building a world that works for everyone will require more than just tinkering at the edges. As Haque puts it, “without building global systems, nothing much will change”.
At the close of the 19th Century, the scourge of sewer gas was not resolved by reducing the number of flush toilets within individual homes and retreating into a world of cesspools and outhouses. It was ended through improvements in the unseen plumbing and infrastructure that ensured the sewer system worked for everyone. Not only did London get a new sewer system but in the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of patents for sewer trap designs as well as water closets and flushing devices.
Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic can provide an impetus for a flood of ideas on how to construct a better global order, rather than for retreating from it. Doing so will not be easy or cheap. But it can be done if the West is willing to invest the resources that it has taken from the rest of the world. And to stop taking a dump on them.